Commentary Magazine


Justice, Prudence, and North Korea

Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s tough-as-nails president, is in an uncomfortable position as it looks more and more like North Korea is to blame for the sinking of one of its ships, and Barack Obama’s softie stance toward tyrannical regimes isn’t helping.

Christian Whiton writes in today’s Wall Street Journal:

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s reluctance to blame North Korea for sinking the corvette ROKS Cheonan on March 26 reflects his political quandary. The center-right government finds itself potentially warred upon by its belligerent neighbor to the north, with little backup from an indifferent population and its American ally. The greater danger is not an immediate war, but an even stronger signal to Pyongyang and the region’s other belligerents that force can be applied without consequence.

The likelihood that North Korea is to blame for the attack increased dramatically in recent days. On Sunday, South Korea’s defense minister blamed the ship’s demise on a torpedo. While he stopped short of fingering North Korea directly, this seemed to rule out hope that the deaths of at least 40 sailors was something other than an intentional act of war. This is far more serious than the usual affrays North Korea is known to instigate.

Mr. Lee has a history of taking a hard line with North Korea, but in this instance, his options are limited.

In just-war theory, there are two criteria that must be considered by any head of state who contemplates how to counter an aggressor. First, he must decide whether military action is justified. If, in fact, Kim Jong-il’s army did deliberately sink the South Korean ship, then that would constitute an attack — a valid justification for South Korean retaliation.

Mr. Lee’s hesitation, then, has more to do with the second criterion: whether retaliation is prudent, regardless of whether or not it is justified. In this, Mr. Lee is at a disadvantage. As noted earlier, because North Korea was allowed to attain nuclear status, Seoul and its allies must tread with caution.

But Mr. Lee’s tough stance is further undermined by Obama’s consistently soft foreign policy and by his trend of pandering to enemies instead of our allies. South Korea can hardly be confident of Washington’s support, regardless of how justified its cause may be. So Mr. Lee can’t be blamed for wondering whether singlehandedly staring down a nuclear-armed, irrational aggressor is really the prudent course for South Korea to take.

However, as Mr. Whiton suggests, the biggest risk isn’t an all-out war with North Korea. At stake is Mr. Lee’s plausibility — but also the plausibility of any nation that claims it will not tolerate an unprovoked attack on a peaceful country. North Korea will almost certainly take the absence of the threat of deterrence as further encouragement to behave badly.

So what to do? Whiton writes:

The alternative need not necessarily be a military strike against North Korea in retaliation, but a realigned security strategy that reacts to the threats posed by Pyongyang. A start could be a naval and aviation show of force that goes right up to North Korea’s territory and reasserts freedom of navigation throughout the region.

But Obama has issued only vague “support and condolences” and an offer for the U.S. Navy’s “assistance to South Korea’s ongoing search and recovery effort.”

It has been said often that Obama’s foreign policy emboldens international troublemakers. But to go a step further, one of the gravest consequences of Obama’s appeasement strategy has been to make it strategically imprudent for a country to justly act in defense of its citizens.